Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Surveys

Dear Documentary Filmmakers: A chorus of talking heads in agreement can weaken your film rather than bolster your argument.

While I’ve touched upon my general views on talking heads before, this DDF is less about talking heads and more about how you make a point. The point you’re trying to make could be taking a particular side in a controversial issue, or it could be something much less argumentative, such as establishing a sense of your protagonist’s personality via interviews with friends and family. How you choose to make that point can mean the difference between swaying a skeptical viewer to your way of thinking or pushing her completely to the opposite viewpoint.

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on a particular form of storytelling that, in my view, generally is not successful in making points effectively: the survey film. What I mean by survey film is a project that typically consists of a series of talking head interviews, with subjects asked to offer their opinions on the same question or series of questions. Usually, the subjects are in basic agreement, and often they may give virtually identical answers. The filmmaker might even think it’s a good idea to edit together their identical answers intermittently in a rapid-fire montage, as if this somehow underscores the film’s points more effectively.

A litany of like-minded voices can lead to surface analysis of an issue that might instead benefit from scratching below that surface. What’s typically missing in this approach are counterpoints or dissenting opinions that can actually engender more thoughtful consideration of the topic – especially if it’s a controversial one that clearly doesn’t have unanimous acceptance. While you might think you’re presenting a strong case, the repetition of agreement might instead be looked at as shouting out your viewpoint loud enough to drown out the opposition, and this, more often than not, doesn’t do much to change anyone’s mind, especially if they’re on the other side. It’s another version of preaching to the converted – propaganda of sorts that pushes forward one agenda without allowing for an intelligent consideration of other viewpoints, or, ideally, for a chance to address head on fallacies predicating the opponent’s beliefs.

To clarify, I’m not suggesting that every film has to give equal time to conflicting sides of an argument or differences of opinion. There are innumerable effective documentaries that are decidedly partisan, omitting representatives of the opposing side whether by necessity or by design. Even so, the best of these make their points in a more nuanced manner rather than hitting the viewer over the head with two dozen talking heads each parroting what the previous one said.

It comes down to this: repetition can make for a really boring film. I’d rather hear one interviewee make a point in a compelling and succinct way than have to listen to a dozen talking heads echoing that same point. It can become numbing. If you want to simply note that your protagonist was an argumentative drunk, include the interview that best establishes this, and move on; your audience doesn’t need to hear everybody chime in. Now, on the other hand, if this is a point of contention in the portrait you are constructing, then it would make sense to give some screen time to another voice that can present his/her POV on the question – but, again, unless the whole film is focused on this singular issue, less is more: make the point quickly and tackle the next part of the story. If you do this, hopefully you should move beyond the survey film structure and its limitations to have room to tell a more engaging story.


Filed under Dear Documentary Filmmakers, Documentary, Film

2 responses to “Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Surveys

  1. aja

    My documentary film explores certain aspects of a particular culture: its history, customs, language, and opinions. In order to get an full view of the culture, I feel like there must be several protagonists: the older woman with traditional beliefs, the young couple, the bachelor, the expatriate living in the culture, the sociologist — all who represent different aspects of the culture. Why does I have to follow one specific person and get a narrow perspective?

    • Thanks for your comment. As with any advice on this blog, there are always exceptions. That said, I am not advocating only telling stories with singular perspectives, or narrow ones. Instead, I am cautioning filmmakers that offering multiple characters who have the same stories or perspectives may not be doing you any favors.

      Filmmakers have to figure out what the best way to tell their stories is. If you feel that a multiplicity of perspectives will do that for your film’s topics, then of course you should explore that and see how it works out. If you find, however, that you end up with multiple subjects who offer the same information and opinions, you might consider whether or not it makes sense to include both in the final film.

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